Although reliable census data, including information on number of families with adopted children, are very difficult to obtain, more than half my informants (the men and women I worked closely with over extended periods, perhaps a total of 35) were either themselves adopted ("lelewa" is the passive form, "be adopted," and lea , "adopt," is the active form), have adopted one or more children since becoming adults, or both. Some informants say the practice is "not rare, but not even a quarter of all families do it." Others say as many as a quarter of all families contain one or more children who have been "adopted." The general reticence about private matters is the main factor inhibiting the collection of data about adoption. There is no suggestion that there is anything disfavored about being an adopted child. On the contrary, men and women report that adopted children, if treated differently from biological children, are treated better and loved more.
This is especially so for those children, and this seems to be the larger category, who are adopted as acts of friendship. Many informants report that if two women like one another and one gives birth, the other will request (omba , which can also be used as "beg" is) that she be given the child to raise. If the birth mother accepts the request, and it appears that it often is, the child will be turned over to its mama mlezi (adoptive mother) at forty days, after which it will be brought to its birth mother (mama mzazi ) for breast feeding several times a day for a year or so, when it will be switched to a bottle to supplement solid food.
It is by no means true that all such relationships begin so early in the child's life. Many are "adopted" much later, and the relationship can be terminated, with the child returning to the biological parents usually because the birth parents are displeased with the way he or she is treated or because the adoptive parents can no longer keep him or her. Such terminations are rare and are taken very seriously by all involved.
The women involved in these relations are, more often than not, kin. Sis-
ters often adopt one another's children, and the same is true for women of the same generation closely related through either their fathers or their mothers. Neighbors also adopt each other's children despite the absence of any kin ties, and cross-generational adoption with a grandmother adopting her own daughter's child, while not common, is not unknown. Men sometimes adopt the children of relatives or even friends, but these adoptions are far more often because of "need" (ya lazima ) than friendship.
Informants all differentiate between two types of adoption: because of need and because of friendship. Men generally instigate adoption when the child of someone to whom they are closely tied is in pressing need of a home because of parental illness or death or other such circumstances. Women are occasionally the main movers in an adoption on such dire grounds, but they are mainly the central figures when adoptions are based on the wish to strengthen relations.
The Lives of Adopted Children and of "Natural" Children
When a child is adopted, he or she continues to see the birth parents on a regular basis and continues to call them baba and mama while using the same terms for the adoptive parents. The visits with the birth parents are just that, visits. The child's home is with the adoptive parents. So far as I could determine, all of the adopted school age boys and girls I know of regularly shinda (spend the whole day as opposed to stopping in for a shorter time) with their biological parents. This type of visit is made by all children, adopted or not, to various relatives. But it is an occasional thing as regards visits to other relatives, while it is often a never missed weekly visit, often on Friday, for those who are adopted.
An adopted child is treated much as a biological child is. In paying the bride-price, for example, the adoptive parents provide the whole amount if they are well-to-do or, at least, a substantial part of it if they are less prosperous. Even as concerns radhi (the parental blessing), many biological parents say that they give theirs if the adoptive parents do and withhold it on the same grounds. I know of adoptive children who provide the funds to support their adoptive parents when the latter are old and unable to provide for themselves.
In general, children leave their parents' home to establish their own household in their early or middle twenties and, as table 2B shows, very few children remain in the parental home beyond their mid-twenties. A few sons, but almost no daughters, leave their parental home before they marry. The sons may leave to take employment in another part of Kenya or abroad, but few sons leave—generally because of quarrels with their fathers—to live with other kin (generally married siblings) or, in unusual cases, in a rented room in the house of a distant kin or unrelated community member.